Looking Good Dead
Cambridge Arts Theatre
31st January 2022
Having played EastEnders’ Ian Beale since its very first episode way back in 1985, you can’t blame Adam Woodyatt for wanting to stretch his acting legs and try something new. Having taken a break from the long-running soap last year, Woodyatt has returned to his stage roots where his career started as a child, and can currently be seen in the crime thriller ‘Looking Good Dead’ which stops at Cambridge this week as part of its national tour.
Woodyatt plays Tom Bryce, husband, father and failing businessman, who finds a USB drive on his train journey hope. Despite common sense and the advice of every IT manager under the sun, Bryce opens the drive on his home laptop, with the intention of finding his owner. Despite the obvious objections from his wife (Laurie Brett, Woodyatt’s on-screen wife Jane in EastEnders), Tom explores the drive with the help of his IT-whizzkid son Max (Luke Ward-Wilkinson), and reveals its shocking contents, putting the Bryce family in danger. As the threats continue to creep in, actions take a dark turn and Tom is forced to find a way of saving his family from a brutal end.
‘Looking Good Dead’ is adapted by Shaun McKenna, from the Peter James novel of the same name, which was published back in 2006. Although a decent enough page-turner, James’ plot isn’t particularly theatrical or necessarily screaming out to be told on a stage, so its transition as a play does come with some significant changes. As such, McKenna deviates heavily from the source material; the Bryce family are all aged by around a decade, other characters’ roles are either expanded or dropped completely, and the plot takes a wildly different route from halfway through, leading to an entirely changed ending. Narratively, this is a very different beast from the novel. Such changes can be commendable, if they gel as a whole and improve on the existing text, but that unfortunately isn’t the case for ‘Looking Good Dead’.
This ‘thriller’s basic problem is just that; for most of its run-time, it doesn’t feel like a thriller, instead feeling like a slightly dark episode of ‘The Bill’. Most of the scenes in either the Bryce’s home or the police station feel tepid and lifeless, and even the darker scenes of implied violence feel strangely sanitised. Fight scenes also feel very clunky and lack any believability. It’s as if director Jonathan O’Boyle didn’t want to push the boundaries too much, and in doing so, doesn’t strike much of an impact either. The set is adequate enough, being on a split level with the Bryce’s home in the foreground and the murderers’ lair higher up, and the “technical aspects” of video calls and streamed feeds are done well. Additional scenes in a police station are created by a desk being wheeled on and off, which does unfortunately look like the beginning of a Victoria Wood sketch every time it happens.
A thriller needs solid acting to really heighten the tension and bring the fear home to the audience, and sadly most performances don’t really land. Hiring two such well-known soap actors may have been this production’s downfall, as the performers still feel like they’re acting in a soap and not a murder thriller. No-one conveys any sense of threat or peril, even the investigating police officers, and it starts to feel like everyone is going through the motions. Woodyatt himself looks almost bored throughout, unconvincing as a man terrified for the safety of his family, more like a man annoyed that his van has just failed its MOT. Later plot revelations may imply a reasoning behind this portrayal, but even so, it doesn’t ring true. Unfortunately the shadow of Ian Beale looms large, and he never escapes it. Harry Long and Leon Stewart also don’t convince as tough crime investigators, lacking any of the grit of their written counterparts, or seemingly having any real sense of urgency to solve the case. Characters who are three-dimensional on the page are reduced to two, and the play suffers as a result.
The decision to deviate so extremely from the novel as to create an entirely new plot for the second half may also have been a double-edged sword. While the novel’s finale wouldn’t have made for a satisfying conclusion to a night at the theatre, the stage version tries to throw so many twists and reveals into its final 10 minutes that it ends up an overblown mess and almost becomes a parody of itself (not helped by Ian Houghton’s Jonas Kent turning into a gangster from a bad mafia film). It all starts to feel very ‘Scooby Doo’. One character does actually say the immortal line, “You would’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for…” and all seriousness is wiped out. You half expect a Great Dane to appear and wink at the audience.
James’ novel may be exposition-heavy and slow-paced, but it does at least raise a few thrills. The stage adaptation barely raises an eyebrow. Fans of generic crime thrillers may find something to enjoy here, but unfortunately for the most part, ‘Looking Good Dead’ is more a case of ‘Looking At Your Watch’.
‘Looking Good Dead’ runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday 5th February, as part of a UK tour.
Performance runtime 2 hours 10 minutes (including interval).